A girl in my area recently died by suicide, and it’s all over my local news as well as town Facebook pages and friends’ posts. My heart aches as I think about what her family is going through. I’m not going discuss the girl specifically- the local news and my neighborhood is doing plenty of that- but I think it may be a good moment to cover what the various reactions to suicide are and what’s normal versus what’s toxic.
A few months ago, I lost an old friend of mine to suicide. My initial reaction was disbelief, which is a common primary state. She and I hadn’t seen each other in person for years, but we’d digitally discussed mental illness and health several times in the months before her passing. It didn’t feel real that she wasn’t going to pop back onto her “finsta” account with another update, on any given day. I missed a vigil for her, for it was held in a different state, but I attended a suicide prevention walk in her honor, dedicating the money that I raised to her.
Perhaps more importantly, a mutual friend of ours connected with me about the matter. We talked a bit about our dismay and I shared that I’d been in contact with her about mental illness. It was an honest and frank discussion, not shrouded in secrecy, stigma, shame, or judgement. That kind of openness is what I believe the reaction to suicide should be based in.
Consider this; when someone dies of any external causes or non-mental illness, the reaction is typically twofold. Folks both seek to mourn and honor the life of the deceased, and figure out ways to prevent what happened. There are enormous foundations, awareness efforts, campaigns dedicated to all kinds of diseases. Donations are funneled into hospital wards for a myriad of bodily illnesses. Laws are put in place to prevent various tragedies, such as seatbelt laws. Crucially, discussion on treatment and/or prevention abounds, and surely everything had been societally done before the passing that could have prevented it.
Not all of those conditions are generally replicated when someone passes due to suicide. The reaction to my old friend’s death seemed well done from where I stood, but they so often aren’t.
It can seem like a delicate balance to maintain. Do you risk suicide contagion by discussing the issue openly? Will it give someone teetering on the edge an extra push? Will it put the idea of suicide in someone’s head, where it otherwise wouldn’t be? How much attention is too much? The answer, I believe, is that while suicide contagion is a tangible risk, it is more important that light be shed on the issue, because the odds are that anyone who might be at risk after a suicide was at risk before.
Suicide contagion is a documented phenomenon, but it’s a result of a specific kind of reaction, not just any reaction. Too often, it is understood as any mention of suicide being a trigger for others. In reality, it’s a reaction to a set of descriptors that media is often tempted to use when writing about a suicide. This includes describing a suicide as “successful,” showing pictures of the scene, detailing the contents of a suicide note, and sensationalistic headlines.
It’s important to consider what these guidelines don’t include. They don’t say you shouldn’t talk about suicide. They don’t say that suicide is something shameful to be hushed up. They don’t say you shouldn’t publicly mourn the deceased.
In fact, the suicide of nationally beloved figure Kurt Cobain serves as a good example of how journalistic suicide coverage can not only avoid being harmful, but can have a net positive effect on suicide prevention at large. Coverage of his death was focused in no small part on the pain of his family and available mental health services. As a result, calls to suicide hotlines increased and the Seattle (local) suicide rate declined. When done right, it’s a better idea to talk about the method of death than leaving things unsaid.
The father of a boy I was recently in a relationship with is a good example of the more local type of suicide silencer. He was afraid of the word suicide even being uttered. His family and I were gathered in their kitchen one night when I suggested that UPenn and Cornell might not be the greatest choices for their son, considering their high academic intensity and noteworthy suicide rates, and his history of mental illness. His father became distressed, silencing me and turning to his wife to say “it’s your job as an adult to stop this discussion.” I hadn’t discussed suicide with any kind of encouraging connotation; in fact, my tone had been preventative. But to him, any mention of the word “suicide” might put it into his son’s head, as if it wasn’t already there, or as if he hadn’t heard of the word before, and was unacceptable. Setting aside the disturbingly faux-macho, controlling nature of the incident, it was a toxic display that could only serve to pretend the potential for an incident wasn’t there, when suicide is always a possibility. Since it’s ever present, it should be able to be discussed at any point, as long as it’s done so healthily.
The idea that merely discussing suicide is bound to induce it is an utter myth. There is no evidence to support the idea that the discussion of suicide, in itself, in any way increases suicide rates. If someone is in enough pain to kill themselves, the word “suicide” has already occurred to them, likely intensely. The only risk factor in discussing suicide is in the manner that it’s done, not the fact that it is done.
Realistically, discussion of suicide helps reduce stigma and allows for preventative services to be accessed. How are folks to know of hotlines and other resources if the descriptive word of the affliction that leads to those services’ necessitation is censored? How are folks supposed to perceive suicide if even the word itself is taboo?
The answer to the problem of how to discuss suicide is simple in theory and must be intentionally carried out. Discuss it. Discuss it a lot. Talk all about mental health services, warning signs, treatment. Talk ad nauseum about hope, about family, about therapy, about the future. Suicidal people are given the best chance when their illness is brought into the light. Otherwise, it can’t be treated and when this illness is left to fester, it is fatal.
Spend some time, today, familiarizing yourself with the warning signs of suicide. If you hear about a suicide in the news, reach out to a friend who may be at risk and ask if they need to talk, or hang out, or have a shoulder to cry on. Keep an eye out. And don’t be afraid to talk all about it.